They Shall Not Grow Old is a day-in-the-life of the British soldier during World War I. The documentary from Peter Jackson was commissioned by the Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW in association with the BBC to celebrate the centennial of Armistice Day. When these groups approached Jackson, they had only one caveat: Jackson must use their archived WWI footage exclusively. After a think, Jackson decided to restore this old footage using modern production techniques, all towards a singular effort: show us the life of a WWI British soldier.
Steven Spielberg’s latest historical drama The Post is a funny little animal. The film is based on Kay Graham’s decision to publish findings from the classified Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post. Graham, played by best living actor front-runner Meryl Streep, was the first woman publisher of a major newspaper, and the film details her struggle with these responsibilities. As such, The Post has a dual focus: it is part defense of free speech and the right to publish, and part celebration of female empowerment. Spielberg does a great job balancing these, but the film also has a peculiar look to it, with an active camera that feels a little too dizzying. Most of the drama derives from Graham’s decision to publish and how she grows more confident in her abilities. Though it may be a little generic with respect to it’s handling of The First Amendment, The Post absolutely nails the more human side of the story.
In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan tells three inter-twined stories of differing lengths and at different speeds, showing how the terrors of war and heroic acts associated with it can exist on various time scales. There are instantaneous acts of heroism, the bread and butter of war films, but also more considered, lengthy heroics on day or week-long scales. Nolan ties them all together by interweaving all three timelines into three separate but related stories of the Battle of Dunkirk. This structure is the overwhelming brilliance of Dunkirk, but Nolan also manages to pack each story line with startling action film-making on land, sea, and air. The result is a masterwork of structure, pacing and storytelling, replete with themes of warfare, heroism, and the true meaning of victory.
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, was a bit of a darling at Cannes this year. Coppola took home Best Director at the festival, which was only the second time a woman won the award. The film itself is a peculiar kind of Civil War era drama charged with the flavor of an erotic thriller or mystery. There’s a deep sexuality to the unraveling of the plot, as a single wounded male character navigates a school of isolated and curious women. The result is a tight tale of empowerment and intrigue, presented in a quiet and classical aesthetic.
The name “Bobby Fischer” is synonymous with high-level chess, even decades after the Brooklyn-born grandmaster won his World Chess Championship match against the reigning champion from the Soviet Union, Boris Spasskey. Staged during the height of the Cold War, the match was seen by both sides as an opportunity to prove intellectual superiority. Pawn Sacrifice dramatizes this iconic battle-of-wits, but also delves into the psychological effects of obsession, dedication, and the heavy burden of worldwide expectation– even on the strongest of minds.
Roger Michell’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel My Cousin Rachel peddles in interesting camera work, astonishing visuals, and solid performances, but lacks a thorough command of tone. The film feels obsessed with the ambiguity of its central romantic mystery, while at the same time laying on the cinematic clues with an unbelievably heavy hand. There’s fascinating technique in the expression of the mystery and the characters involved in it, but the execution misses often enough to infuse the film with an uneven mood. This makes it hard to understand when to take the ambiguity seriously and when to embrace the apparent obviousness of it all.
There’s a wayward flavor to obsession, a feeling of being swept off one’s feet by some new passion. In James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, the expedition that began as Percy Fawcett’s chance to restore glory to his family name morphs into a lifelong zeal for exploration an discovery. Based on the book of the same name by David Grann, Gray’s film follows the life of British soldier Fawcett and his exploits throughout the Amazon rainforest. The film boasts expert performances, cinematography that conveys the paradoxical claustrophobia of the untamed jungle, and a plot that leaves the spectator insatiable, always hoping for additional revelations and understanding. Though the themes waver a bit and employ the noble savage stereotype to its full effect, The Lost City of Z beautifully surveys the spirit of adventure and obsession that consumes each and every one of us – in one way or another.
No film in recent memory lionizes a performance quite like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. The entire film embraces Natalie Portman’s expert depiction of the iconic first lady. Portman’s performance has a imitative style to it, complete with specific elocution, affect, and emotion – all of which she delivers with a quiet and confident ferocity. Larraín takes full advantage of Portman’s talent by framing most of the film in close ups, a stylistic choice that instills the spectator with a deep empathy. Even the structure of the narrative reflects Portman’s performance: thoroughly non-linear, the disjointed organization conveys and cements the confusion that Jackie is experiencing. Portman’s nonesuch portrayal completely fuels Larraín’s film, and is responsible for the heights it reaches.
Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is more than a harrowing dramatization of the events of September 11th, 2001. It’s also a profound treatise on the significance of information, and how ignorance leads to irrationality, uncertainty, and fear. This piece will look at three aspects of the film and how each is intimately tied to the availability of information: the plot, the characters, and the themes. The plot is revealed slowly, as a sense of dramatic irony permeates the spectator’s interpretation of the events. Characterization is established by reactions to the inexplicable, and then corresponding responses as more information becomes known. Even the ultimate thematic statements hinge in the treatment information in United 93. Greengrass concludes that information is power – especially in the hands of individuals.